What put the dream into the Dreamliner? Composites. Woven strings of carbon help give the Boeing 787 tremendous range because it’s lighter than traditional aluminum planes, an advantage that’s drawn more than a thousand orders. This dream has had some scary parts. A pair of battery meltdowns spurred regulators worldwide to ground the cutting-edge fleet for nearly four months in early 2013, the first time the U.S. had taken such a step since 1979. Before that, years of production delays dimmed the jet’s luster. While there’s been little drama for a new, longer model, Boeing is still working out software bugs behind the false error messages that made the initial 787 something of a hypochondriac.
Dreamliners still attract headlines for minor mechanical malfunctions that would be ignored on less notorious planes. Skittish consumers weren’t reassured when a 787 caught fire at London’s Heathrow airport in July 2013, although that blaze was linked to a common emergency beacon and not the innovative design. Airlines have seen teething problems on new jets before, and those that bought the 787 have few options: Airbus’s response, the A350, is sold out through the end of the decade.
Boeing packed its first built-from-scratch jetliner since 1995 with new technology, from sleek wings to electronically dimmed window shades, and assembled it with an untried global production system. But after supply-chain snarls and design glitches left the plane three years behind schedule, executives conceded that they had shot for too many firsts. Anxieties about the 787’s all-electric systems, sparked by an electrical fire on a test jet in 2010, were amplified when lithium-ion batteries smoldered on two jets early last year. An investigation released by the National Transportation Safety Board in December 2014 found that inadequate design and testing were to blame for the fires. The FAA had already allowed the planes to fly again in April 2013 after Boeing redesigned the battery unit to contain fire damage.
Boeing reached for the sky with the 787 and got singed with costs estimated at $20 billion. The experience may clip aerospace innovation for the next decade. Airbus opted for a less risky composite-metal blend for its A350 jets, which won’t begin flying commercially until late 2014. The next aircraft in Boeing’s development pipeline, the 737 Max and 777X, are makeovers of current best-selling models rather than all-new designs.
The Reference Shelf
- A Bloomberg News article on airlines’ stake in the 787’s success.
- A spreadsheet showing the 787’s order history from Boeing’s website.
- Industry publication Design News reports on the history of Boeing’s use of composites.
- Compare the three versions of the Dreamliner on Boeing’s commercial airplanes website, and see their prices.
- From Bloomberg Businessweek, a look at the Dreamliner’s history and the state of innovation in American business.
First published Feb. 10, 2014
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